Do yourself a favor and see ‘The Witch’ this weekend

02.17.16 1 year ago

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Back in December, part of the marketing campaign around the Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy Sisters involved the hashtag #YouCanSeeBoth, which reminded audiences that despite opening opposite the biggest movie of the year (ahem, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), there was still enough time for moviegoers to check out Sisters during its theatrical run. Ignoring the fact that seeing two films in theaters within the span of a single week (or even a single month) is not the financial reality for a sizable portion of the moviegoing audience, it was a winning slogan that seems to have worked: Sisters turned in a solid performance at the box-office, taking in a very good $86 million domestically on a budget of $35 million despite opening opposite J.J. Abrams' four-quadrant behemoth.

This weekend I would like to co-opt the #YouCanSeeBoth hashtag for another title: writer/director Robert Eggers' fantastic, dread-steeped horror film The Witch, which A24 is putting out in a shockingly-high 1,800 theaters this weekend despite the fact that it takes place in the 1630s and boasts period-specific (read: occasionally difficult to decipher) dialogue. Unfortunately for The Witch, it's playing against Deadpool's second weekend in theaters, where the latter film — which shattered every industry expectation by bringing in over $150 million over its four-day opening weekend — is projected to gross another $70 million, once again dominating the frame. I won't begrudge anyone's desire to see the Merc with a Mouth on the big screen given the huge buzz Deadpool has received since breaking a number of box-office records last weekend, but I would also urge people who care about quality cinema not to forget about The Witch, which is so good that I simply can't imagine a better horror film coming out this year.

After several failed attempts, I finally watched the film last night and I will tell you: it is one of the most deeply haunting experiences you're ever likely to have in a theater. In his review from last year's Sundance, where A24 acquired the film for $1 million, Drew called it “so suffocating at times that it feels like we're watching something genuinely transgressive, something we should not be seeing.” I second that analysis. One of the very first scenes involves something with a baby where — while nothing graphic is shown on screen — the implied horror of the moment is deeply upsetting. And that's just the first 20 minutes.

That aside, The Witch is not a movie about shocks, and indeed, those going in expecting it to be that run the risk of coming away disappointed. I don't want to oversell it as a film of moment-to-moment scares (the kind that caters to a Friday night audience), because in a sense that would be underselling it. The horror of The Witch goes much deeper than a film like Insidious or Paranormal Activity. Its portrait of a family we actually care about slowly coming unraveled hits us where we live.

That's the sum, but The Witch's parts are equally spellbinding. According to an intertitle at the end of the film, much of the dialogue spoken by the characters was taken from the diaries of real people who lived in colonial America during the period, lending it an air of authenticity that goes a long way in selling the premise. The actors all do excellent work as well, with newcomer Ana Taylor-Joy likely to receive most of the plaudits but Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie also turning in harrowing portrayals of God-fearing parents William and Katherine, whose bold venture into the unknown results in devastating consequences. And as eldest son Caleb, talented newcomer Harvey Scrimshaw has an extended, feverish monologue that's so haunting you'll think about it for days afterward.

I could go on about this film: the strict attention to period detail, the bone-chilling score by Mark Korven, the ending that serves equally well as multi-faceted allegory and haunting visual conceit, but then I think it's better you see it for yourself.

The Witch is in theaters this Friday.

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